Today more than ever, video games are for everyone. There are games that are great for young and old alike, releases that are perfect for families to play together, and there are games suitable only for adults.
The diversity of content is what makes games such an accessible, universal medium. However, it also means that not every game is suitable for every player. That is why we have age ratings in the UK. They provide information for players, parents and guardians and make sure people of every age can enjoy games that are age appropriate.
Games can bring enjoyment, engagement and entertainment. Games can promote numerous psychological and behavioural benefits. Games can be used for education, training and business as well as for fun.
However, unless care is taken, it is also possible to play games for too long; spend compulsively; view age-inappropriate content; and be subjected to bad behaviour online.
That is why TIGA has created this accessible guide for consumers and parents. Below you can find information and advice on:
  • Age ratings and games
  • Tips for parents
  • Health benefits
  • Online games and online safety
  • Free-to-Play games and in-app purchases
  • Gaming Disorder
  • What to do if you think you need help

Age Ratings and Games

Video game age-ratings offer a simple, clear means to let you know what audience a game is suitable for in terms of the themes of its content, as well as what those themes might be.

In the UK, game age-ratings are regulated by an organisation called PEGI – the Pan European Game Information group and administrated in the UK by the Video Standards Council Rating Board. As well as being the sole age rating body for video games in the UK, it is also used and recognised throughout Europe, as well as across other entertainment mediums such as film, TV and mobile apps.

PEGI ratings are double tiered. That means they state an age, and also provide additional information which make buying decisions easier. It is essential to understand that not all games are made for children. Some games are perfect for all ages, some are suitable for children, some are suitable for teenagers, and others are absolutely adult in theme.

The ratings are as follows:

• PEGI 3 – suitable for those aged three and above

• PEGI 7 – suitable for those aged seven and above

• PEGI 12 – suitable for those aged 12 and above

• PEGI 16 – suitable for those aged 16 and above

• PEGI 18 – suitable for those aged 18 and above

So a PEGI 7 game is only suitable for those aged seven and above, while a PEGI 18-rated game is only suitable for adults aged 18 and above.  PEGI 18 games are rated at the level for a reason. Their content will be just as unsuitable for a child as an 18-rated film.

It’s important to note that the PEGI age rating considers the age suitability of a game; not the level of difficulty or complexity. You might, for example, see a complicated simulation or a high strategy city-building game with a PEGI 3 rating.  That will likely mean it has no content that would be disturbing to a child, but it could still be far too complex for a three-year-old. To find out how complex the game is, you can look for reviews online, in papers and magazines.

 

Useful websites which offer games reviews include: Guardian, Tech Advisors, and  Gamespot.

The second tier of the PEGI ratings are listed alongside the age-ratings, and provide broad insights into the themes that have prompted the rating. Some games will have more than one theme listed.

The second tier themes are:

  • Violence – Game contains depictions of violence

  • Bad language – Game contains bad language

  • Fear – Game may be frightening or scary for young children

  • Sex – Game depicts nudity and/or sexual behaviour, or sexual references

  • Gambling – Games that encourage or teach gambling

  • Drugs – Game refers to or depicts the use of drugs

  • Discrimination – Game contains depictions of, or materials which may encourage, discrimination

  • Online – Online game

  • In-game purchases – It is possible to spend money within a game

More information on the PEGI rating system can be found here.

More information on the introduction of the new ‘in-game purchases’ content descriptor can be found here.

BBFC

Some titles are additionally required to feature the BBFC rating logo, as famously seen on films.
The BBFC consider issuing classification for video games contained on discs which feature primarily linear video content and any pornographic video games. They also advise on the classification of linear video footage contained in games which are not integral to the game. This includes, for example, rewards and video content in games which are designed to be viewed in its own right, without taking forward the narrative drive of the game, such as game trailers.
The BBFC is responsible for classifying linear VR (virtual reality) content whereas the video games authority is responsible for classifying non-linear VR content.
As with the PEGI ratings, BBFC ratings provide helpful guides for parents when making decisions about appropriate content. More information on the BBFC rating system can be found here.

App Store Age Rating

Video games are increasingly available to download as apps via platforms such as the Apple App Store, Google Play and Microsoft Store. To advise parents on which apps and games are appropriate for their child, app platforms present age ratings visible before download. However, different app stores use different systems for determining the appropriate age of games.
Microsoft and Google (Android) require developers to obtain a rating from the International Age Rating Coalition to rate their app content.
Apple Age ratings are set by the developer when they submit the app to Apple for review. Therefore, there is no independent rating system for apple apps. For more information on Apple’s age rating process, please see Apple’s App Store Review Guidelines.
Apple have additional parental controls that can be added to your child’s iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch. You can block or limit specific apps and features on your child’s device and restrict the settings to block explicit content, purchases and downloads, and privacy. More information on parental controls and how to add them to a device can be found here.
Google Play offer similar parental controls, more information can be found here.

Tips for parents

The age ratings provided by PEGI are legally enforceable, but ultimately offer a guide, and parents and guardians will still have to make their own decisions in the home about what is suitable. You may feel, for example, that due to a past experience a 12-rated game will not be appropriate for your 13-year-old child. By becoming more familiar with how the ratings work and the games your children are playing, you will be better able to judge suitability and the level of parental controls required.

And there is much you can do.

Here are some tips:

  • Always look for the age classification on the game package or app store before purchasing or downloading a game for your child.
  • Research the games your child is playing. Try to look for a summary or review of the game content, or ideally play the game yourself first. Games are often playable in stores, at events, or via downloadable demos.
  • Play video games with your children, watch over them when they play, and talk with them about the games they play. Explain why you feel certain games are not suitable.
  • Be aware that online games sometimes enable the download of extra software that can alter the game content, and possibly the age classification of the game.
  • Understand that online games are usually played in virtual communities, requiring players to interact with other real people over the internet. Sometimes other players will be real-life friends, but in most cases they will be strangers.
  • Understand that online games are usually played in virtual communities, requiring players to interact with other real people over the internet. Sometimes other players will be real-life friends, but in most cases they will be strangers.
  • Reassure your child that if there is anything that makes them feel uncomfortable, confused or upset, they can talk to you without you getting angry.
  • Tell your children not to give out personal details in games, and encourage them to report inappropriate behaviour to you. This can be passed on to the game’s creators via their website, or even within the game itself.
  • Set limits to what your children can play – and for how long – by using the parental control tools on your games consoles, mobile devices and computers. Parental controls also let you manage what your children can and cannot download. The NSPCC has created a detailed and helpful guide to setting up parental controls on a range of devices, and in a variety of cases, covering games and more
  • Never give your children passwords which allow money to be spent online in games. Make sure you handle and approve all in-game spending.
  • Monitor your child’s screen time. The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health suggests that it is “impossible” to recommend age appropriate time limits, instead urging parents to “approach screen time based on the child’s development age [and] individual need.” For more information see the full report here.

For more information on video games, see TIGA’s Frequently Asked Questions and Answers guide.

Health Benefits

There are numerous benefits to playing games, of course. While simple escapism can be powerfully helpful, games can also educate, improve social skills, connect families, offer physical health benefits, engage children with creativity and literacy, and inspire remarkably rewarding careers.

Everything should be done in moderation. Anything done to excess can be bad for you, and video games are no exception. Sometimes even a long gaming session can be rewarding, but when it constantly comes at the expense of work, study, sleep, eating, socialising or physical activity, there may well be a problem that needs addressing. Games should be played as part of a balanced life.

With regards to health, some aspects of gaming should be noted. For example, Nintendo warns that children under the age of six should avoid playing on the Nintendo 3DS console and various manufacturers warn about youngsters using some VR headsets.

Different manufacturers have different age recommendations for VR headsets, but general advice is that children should be monitored and take regular breaks. For example:

  • Samsung Gear VR: The Gear VR should not be used by children under the age of 13.
  • Google Cardboard: Google does not specify an age, but advise that Cardboard is not for use by children without adult supervision.
  • Sony PlayStation VR: The VR headset is not for use by children under the age of 12.
  • Google Daydream View: Daydream View should not be used by children under the age of 13.
  • Oculus Rift: The product should not be used by children under the age of 13.

VR involves immersive technology that engages your body, eyes and because children are still growing and developing, you’re advised to limit their time using VR.

A parent’s guide to VR gaming can be found here.

Today there is increasing evidence that playing video games can have health benefits to children and adults alike. For example, research has found that playing video games can:

A common criticism of video games is that their sometimes violent content can drive real-world aggression. However, recent research shows violent video game engagement is not associated with adolescents’ aggressive behaviour. Dr Tanya Byron’s high profile government-commissioned report Safer Children in a Digital World – otherwise known as The Byron Review – also found no causal link between playing violent video games and violence in real life.

Online Games and Online Safety

Increasingly, video games use the power of the internet to offer more features. Games on consoles, computers, mobile phones and those played through websites can all be internet connected games.

In the simplest cases, a game is connected to the internet so the company that made the game can update it remotely. These updates might add new levels, fix errors in a game found by users, or make other small tweaks.

Many games use an internet connection to sell digital items to be used in games. For more information, see the Free-to-Play and In-App Purchases section.

Online Communities

The most significant way games use an internet connection, is to let communities of users play a game together. This often takes the form of ‘online multiplayer’, when anything from a handful of players to hundreds of users tackle a game simultaneously. The players may be working together to beat a game, competing against each other, or even enjoying individual experiences in an online world where most of the game characters they meet are actually real people also playing the game. Players can also use this kind of connectivity to simply watch others play, effectively making them spectators.

Many online multiplayer games let players chat to each other while playing, either with a microphone, or using written text. Sometimes other players will be selected friends, but in many cases everyone you play with in an online game will be a stranger.

Connected games can bring all kinds of opportunities, from simply offering better gameplay experiences, to building communities that can learn, create and share the many benefits playing games can bring. However, connecting with strangers on the internet can bring real dangers, from cyberbullying to grooming. Where online chat in games is concerned, other players can say what they want, uncensored; that might mean exposure to content that is adult in theme, abusive or offensive.

Equally, online games can offer extremely compelling escapism; that can mean a game provides a beneficial refuge from a difficult real-world situation.

Many game companies across the world recognise their responsibility to protect their online users. Users identified as harassing, bullying or grooming other players can be reported to the game company, possibly to be banned or blocked. Meanwhile, large online game companies typically have teams dedicated to policing their digital worlds. In the coming years we are also likely to see artificial intelligence play a greater role in protecting online users.

However, there is much a parent can do at home. The most important thing is to keep talking to your children about the games they play. And don’t just talk about dangers and restrictions. Talk about the fun they are having, the games they are enjoying, and what they have been getting up to in online worlds. Having those friendly, casual and enthusiastic conversations will make it easier for your child to talk to you when there are problems – and easier for you to get your child to listen when you need a serious word about games.

For information on what parents can do to keep their child safe online, see our Tips for Parents section.

Free-to-play and in-app-purchases

Most games require some money to play. Traditionally that meant one upfront cost when buying a game over the counter at a shop. After buying the game, no more money was required. That still exists, both with boxed physical releases, and with downloadable games. Today, these games are often referred to as ‘premium’ games.

Increasingly though, it is easy to find games that are offered for ‘free’, but then provide extra at a cost. The most common method sees players able to progress faster by spending some money. A game may ask for payment to acquire extra lives, to use more powerful characters, to fast forward a timer preventing player progress, or to buy fictional ‘in-game currency’ that can then be used for certain in-game abilities. This model is called ‘free-to-play’; often shortened to ‘F2P’. This is often called ‘In-App Purchasing, or IAP. These terms are not hard and fast, however, and you will certainly see the F2P model described as including IAP.

F2P games can be of great value to consumers and developers alike. This is because the F2P business model allows consumers to play extremely high quality games entirely free before actually spending any money. A report published by TIGA in 2013 showed that typically 95 per cent of consumers playing a F2P game don’t spend any money at all. However, it can be possible to spend large amounts over time on such games, and it is not unknown for children – innocently or otherwise – to spend significant sums of their parents’ money on a game that is understood by those adults to be ‘free’. This often happens when parents give their children their device passwords. Parents and guardians should avoid giving their children their device passwords.

It is important that the video games industry adheres to high standards. The Competition Markets Authority has developed a set of Principles for Online and App-based Games with which all games businesses selling games to UK consumers have had to comply with since April 1st 2014. The eight principles have been developed after extensive consultation with TIGA, games businesses and other interested parties. They ensure that consumers, particularly children, are protected from commercially dubious practices.

The CMA has published a short guide providing advice to parents and carers about these games. See: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/buying-features-in-online-games-advice-for-parents-and-carers

The eight principles are:

  1. The costs associated with playing should be clear, accurate and displayed “prominently up-front” before a consumer plays.
  2. All other material information about a game should also be clear, accurate and displayed “prominently up-front” before a consumer plays.
  3. Information about the games business should also be provided to the consumer, including whom they ought to contact in case of queries.
  4. In-game promotion of extra paid-for content and the promotion of other products or services should be clear, distinguishable from gameplay and the explanation should be tailored to the consumer’s age.
  5. A game should not give a false impression that payments are required or are an integral part of the way a game is played if that is incorrect.
  6. Games should not include aggressive practices, or those otherwise having the potential to exploit children’s inexperience, vulnerability or credulity.
  7. A game should not include direct exhortations to children to make a purchase or persuade others to make a purchase for them.
  8. Payments should not be taken from the payment account holder unless expressly authorised purchase for them.

Both free and premium games are today regularly updated over the internet in a way that is truly free. These updates may simply fix problems the players have found, or add regular new content.

There are, of course, entirely free games. Some of these are funded by including adverts. Many games played in web browsers, however, are both ad-free and truly free. That’s not true for every browser game, though.

The best solution to addressing this complexity? Do some research before letting your child play a game.

Gaming Disorder

On 18 June 2018, the World Health Organisation (WHO) published a classification of a new ‘gaming disorder’ in their International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11). As defined by the WHO, a gaming disorder is:

‘a pattern of gaming behavior (“digital-gaming” or “video-gaming”) characterized by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities, and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences.’

For ‘gaming disorder’ to be diagnosed, the WHO stated:

‘The behaviour pattern must be of sufficient severity to result in significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other important areas of functioning and would normally have been evident for at least 12 months.’

For more details, please visit: https://www.who.int/features/qa/gaming-disorder/en/

It is important to note that the WHO believes that only a minority of gamers suffer from ‘gaming disorder’:

‘Studies suggest that gaming disorder affects only a small proportion of people who engage in digital- or video-gaming activities. However, people who partake in gaming should be alert to the amount of time they spend on gaming activities, particularly when it is to the exclusion of other daily activities, as well as to any changes in their physical or psychological health and social functioning that could be attributed to their pattern of gaming behaviour.’

A number of academics and healthcare professionals publicly disagreed with the WHO’s classification, saying it lacked consensus and could lead to misdiagnosis or stigmatisation of gamers. For example:  https://www.theverge.com/2018/6/19/17479318/gaming-disorder-who-psychology-video-games-science

Studies estimate between 0.3-1 per cent of the general population might qualify for a potential acute diagnosis of Internet gaming disorder. Some studies suggest that gaming disorder is a symptom of underlying attention related mental health issues, rather than a unique phenomenon.

For example see:

What to do if you think you or a loved one game too much

If you believe gaming is constantly getting in the way of yours or a loved one’s work, study, sleep, eating, socialising or physical activity, there may well be a problem that needs addressing.

Please seek professional medical advice from the NHS.